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Faith to move mountains

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Soldiers of the Cross

Gary and Julie Green find themselves defending against accusations that they've led their flock astray

On a sky-blue summer morning, Gary and Julie Green share a table at the Missoula Denny's on south Brooks Street. The couple, clean-cut as could be, comes across as youthful and dynamic.

Gary sports subtle specs, Julie's hair is stylishly cropped, and their conversation is polite, if slightly on-edge. If the Greens are a little nervous, it's probably because they've left their kids with a sitter at eight in the morning to answer questions about their faith and livelihood over thin coffee and a muffin.

The Missoula Christian Church, the growing congregation they lead for a living, is fighting a running battle with those who call it a cult. Gary is the lead evangelist-the pastor, basically. Julie serves as the women's leader. They say the MCC is non-denominational, Bible-based, sworn to a rigorous faith, involved in charitable service. As in many other conservative Christian churches, Scripture and traditional values hold sway.

"It's pretty simple, really," Gary says. "We provide the same things any church does. We do a lot for the community, working with Garden City Harvest, with Alzheimer's patients, doing contributions for the Red Cross.

"We just want to help people in their relationships with God."

There's an edge to Green's voice-forgivable, perhaps, given that people in Missoula and across the country allege that his ministry is in fact part of a worldwide scheme that robs people of their freedom and money. "You can maybe understand if there's a little tension," he says.

The Missoula Christian Church is part of the International Churches of Christ. Today, about four years after the Missoula branch was "planted"-to use the ICC's own terminology-a chorus of concern is swelling.

Local pastors are organizing to counsel Missoula's ex-members, parents hoping to extricate their children are bringing in advisors from out of state, and university officials are keeping an eye on campus recruitment, traditionally one of the ICC's focal points.

At Denny's, diners keep waitresses filling cups. A techno song, disconcerting in the all-American atmosphere, urges listeners not to get "burned by the light that's reflected." Reflected by what, the singer doesn't say, and the crowd, preoccupied by newspapers and the first sting of caffeine, doesn't seem to care.

It's hard to imagine the Greens at the head of an organization that rules with fear, shame and intimidation, dominates lives, demands absurd amounts of time and money, divides up families and grinds down self-esteem.

But that's exactly what detractors say the Missoula Christian Church does. They argue the church is manipulative and that its recruiting efforts on the University of Montana's campus pose a threat to incoming students who may be too naive to protect themselves. Ex-members and relatives alike describe financial sacrifice, broken relationships and despair.

The former members-"fall aways," in the ICC's parlance-quoted in this story don't want their names printed. They say a sincere religious search led them into a worldly hell and that they've had enough.

Before the church's ritual baptism, they say, they never knew the local group was part of the International Churches of Christ, a movement mired in controversy nearly everywhere it's found. Complaints heard in Missoula are echoed in headlines from New York City to Nairobi, and those opposed to the Greens' mission are hardly the first to label the sect a cult.

Trauma reverberates in the voice of John Esp, a Big Timber, Mont., man whose daughter belongs to the Missoula church. Even over hundreds of miles of phone lines, Esp's anguish comes through clear as crystal as he recounts a recent attempt, using experienced counselors and ex-members, to convince his child to leave.

"It's your worst nightmare," Esp says, voice quaking. "I've always had a good relationship with my daughter. We never went through the normal animosities that happen when teen-agers and parents mix. It's sad to see someone who used to be one of the most independent-minded thinkers become totally dependent on the instructions of others, unable to make decisions about the littlest things."

Jen (like other ex-members of the MCC referred to by first names in this article, she's asked that a pseudonym be used) a UM student who joined the church in high school and broke away recently, backs up Esp's story of complete control. She says she saw the extent to which leaders influence their charges.

"I became a girl's 'discipler,'" she recounts, using the church's term for the personal advisor assigned each member after baptism. "She'd ask if it was all right if she went to the mall that day. And of course, I had no idea, so I went to my discipler, and it went up the line. It takes all day to find out if you're allowed to have lunch with someone."

Esp, who's been in contact with state, local and university officials about the church's on-campus recruitment efforts, doesn't mince words when it comes to Gary Green, Missoula Christian Church or the ICC's leadership.

"At the upper levels of that organization, they have no regard for human dignity or freedom," he says. "The whole organization is held together and run by fear. My daughter literally ran from my house barefoot with a look of fear for her life, fear of me. That's amazingly sad to me.

"After our intervention failed, we got in the car and tried to beat her back to Missoula. I went to Gary Green, the so-called pastor of this church, and basically read him the riot act. I told him that anything that happened to my daughter from then on, I'd hold him responsible.

"They've basically instilled in her a version of her past that has no basis in reality. And for her to be abused and to be abusing others in the name of a God that I believe in and that she believes in is so unbelievably sad."

The Greens maintain that their church is not a malignant force. Gary Green readily acknowledges the Missoula church's affiliation with the Los Angeles-based ICC, though he insists his congregants are free to do as they like. "I preach my own material," he says. "I study the Bible and try to figure out what the church needs."

"As far as leadership of the church goes," Julie Green interjects, "no one tells us what to do."

Warming to the task of defending his flock, Gary Green's tone softens as he dismisses the charge that he's running a dangerous operation. "We really try to meet people's needs," he says. "Unfortunately, that's not possible for everyone. The people you're talking to are not people who came to me with problems.

"If I had known, maybe I could have done something about it. Beyond that, it's hard to answer accusations,"

"And that's all they are," Julie adds. "Just accusations."

Story of a fall away

Judy was looking for spiritual growth when she and her husband found their way to the Greens' congregation.

"When I first found them, I thought it was too good to be true. They said they were an independent, non-denominational church with all kinds of social functions. I saw this love, this emotion, this re-conversion to faith."

Judy marked the second anniversary of her baptism in the MCC in January, and the second anniversary of her final break just six months later, in early June. Months before her departure, she says, the pre-baptism training disturbed her.

"It basically shows you that everything you've ever done before is wrong in the eyes of God, and that the only way to make it right with God is to be baptized into their church," she says.

After her baptism, she found out she'd joined the International Churches of Christ, and that she'd now have to answer to a discipler assigned her by the church.

"That's where my husband and I started to have difficulties," she says. "I already have a mom. I was discipled about spending too much time on my own, if you can believe that. You're expected to spend time with the church in some fashion every day.

"If you don't make it to a church function, they tell you that you have a bad heart, that you've been untrue to the Kingdom."

As Judy became more involved, the group's financial demands got heavier, pushing her family's resources and straining less-well-off members, Judy says. The church asks members to donate 10 percent of their income, and in addition, church leaders seek a "special missions contribution," once a year-a one-off donation 10 to 20 times larger than an individual's weekly tithe.

Though most churches rely on the pockets of parishioners, Judy claims the Missoula Christian Church and other ICC affiliates use pressure, the power of discipler over disciple, and the doctrine that the church holds the only key to Heaven, to coerce donations.

"Gary said once in my presence that 'contribution is a measure of your faith,'" she says. "That really disturbed me, that he'd say that money was a gauge of spirituality."

The Greens deny that they use religious influence to pry loose cash. "In fact, one person who left the church recently demanded his money back, and he's getting it back," Gary says. "We don't want anyone's money who's not willing to give. Actually, I don't think we're under any obligation to do that, but we want to be above reproach."

The ICC says most of the money goes to charity, particularly to Hope Worldwide, an organization run by ICC leaders. Judy and others have their doubts, though.

"I called Gary and asked him how much was raised in special contributions and what it was being used for," she says. "He said that Missoula raised $40,000, and that of that $30,000 was going to the Denver church to be placed in a general fund for all the churches."

Beyond financial questions and her personal difficulties with matters of doctrine, Judy says the use of disciplers places vulnerable people at the mercy of leaders, with painful secrets revealed in confession used against them. With many of the members convinced they'll go to Hell if they leave, Judy says local leaders like Green have too much power over the bank accounts and habits of their followers.

"This group practices a very subtle, very refined kind of mind control," she says. "After you're baptized, that's when the extra-biblical teachings and doctrine start to appear. They call it 'love-bombing' before baptism, when everyone is just so open and concerned about you and how you're doing.

"Then after baptism, it turns around."

Kip McKean's kingdom

When Judy decided to go against the dictates of the church-which, she says, counsels members to ignore negative publicity and information-and seek outside information on the ICC, she didn't have to look far.

"I typed in the word 'cult' on an Internet search engine, and right away a site came up called 'Triumphing Over London Cults,'" she says. "They always emphasized that the first church outside the United States was in London."

The London page is one of dozens-probably hundreds-of websites maintained by ex-members of the International Churches of Christ. An American site, run by the San Francisco-based anti-ICC organization Reveal, contains volumes about the group's structure, practices, theology and alleged wrongs.

The church in its current form got its start in 1979, when a young minister named Kip McKean took the biblical training he'd garnered around the country to Boston.

Along with 30 or so would-be disciples, he founded a new movement within the already-existing Churches of Christ. Several central tenets separated it from other churches-particularly discipling, a practice placing each member of the church under another.

Julie Green explains that discipling springs right out of the biblical charge "to make disciples of all nations."

"A lot of churches have prayer partners and things like that, and that's basically what it is," she says. "There are over 50 Scriptures that talk about teaching one another, but basically it's meant to be a great friendship."

From the beginning, though, the discipling process has been criticized. In particular, it's been widely alleged that confessional discussions are not confidential, that members' sins are compiled into lists that get passed around and trotted out when it's convenient for the church to do so.

The Greens reject those charges out of hand. "James says confess sins to each other, and that the prayers of a righteous man are effective," Gary says. "But no one makes anyone talk about anything."

"It's definitely voluntary," Julie adds. "People don't have to talk about things they don't want to talk about."

Despite controversy, McKean's new line of churches spread far and wide. The tactic is simple: Trained ministers from one church move to other cities and start, or "plant," new congregations. Since McKean's doctrine demands only one church in each city, there are never two affiliated groups in one place.

In a 1994 article available from the ICC's website, McKean writes, "In 1981-82 the Lord put on my heart a vision for the world." Infused with this almost-messianic vitality, the so-called Boston Movement grew rapidly. By the late '80s, however, more mainline Churches of Christ had disavowed McKean's followers. The established sect claimed it was breaking off ties with a cult of personality; Boston Movement defenders pointed out that their churches were the only congregations in the Churches of Christ growing in membership.

In 1990, McKean moved his headquarters to Los Angeles. In 1993, with branches firmly established-and squarely in the sights of anti-cult activists-as far and wide as London, Manilla, Africa and Scandinavia, the name International Churches of Christ was formally adopted.

Today, McKean and his wife Elena sit atop a pyramid power structure, but the Greens refute critics' claims that the McKeans are Svengalis amassing power and wealth. They also deny that the Missoula church takes direct orders from Los Angeles through Seattle, the nearest metropolitan ICC affiliate, as some ex-members charge.

"Somebody leads every organization," Gary Green says. "Kip McKean has never been to Missoula. I've talked to him twice in passing in five years in the ministry. It's hard to answer accusations made against somebody else, of course."

These assertions make ex-members like Judy livid. They've been there, they say, and they've seen McKean's influence. "That's like saying that if you work for Microsoft and have never met Bill Gates... Well, no matter if you've met him or not, everything you do is dictated by Bill Gates," Judy says.

"There are monthly update videos that come from the ICC in LA. After I got out, I started studying tapes and transcripts of Kip McKean and other church leaders, and many of the things they said were exactly what Gary said, almost verbatim. It was eerie. Words I had thought were Gary's turned out to be Kip McKean's."

Casualties of war

The ICC itself describes its mission as nothing less than conquering the world in the name of Christ-or "evangelizing the world in this generation."

These declarations are in line with evangelistic Christian beliefs in the need to introduce God to those not saved. According to a few local ex-members and people who've counseled ICC members-who also asked that their names not be used-McKean's troops pursue their quest with near-military seriousness.

Those who don't display adequate zeal are harshly criticized, often accused of sliding into sin, and when they "fall away," they're sometimes called "casualties of war."

Sam, an ex-member, sees some poetic justice in this reference. A veteran who saw friends die in a helicopter accident, Sam finds many military parallels in the church that had him convinced, for a time, he would be damned if he left.

"The Marine Corps is really the only thing I know to compare it to," he says. "Gary Green is in charge, locally, of a very corporate, very sterile organization. He's a lieutenant working on his captain's bars. They have their own language, all these catch words- 'contro' for contribution, 'devo' for devotional, 'awesome.' Everything's 'awesome.' I hate that word now."

Sam says that on his departure from the church, brought about by personal attacks and pressure to recruit, he was branded a "Judas."

He says members of the church harassed him for weeks, trying to get him to return. "Before I left and right afterwards, I was a suicidal, emotional wreck. It's spiritual rape. That's the only way I can describe it. I didn't care if I went to Hell. I had to get out."

The believers tell their side

The Missoula Christian Church sits in a nondescript part of town, out on West Broadway. The exterior's neat, adorned with gold lettering. Inside, Brantley Curtiss, and Colleen and

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Craig Caprara seem the polar opposite of wild-eyed cultists. They're spiffed up for Sunday services in the airy converted tractor garage.

Sitting in a loft above the church's expansive main room, buzzing now with a gaggle of chatting adults and politely rambunctious little kids, the three take the ex-members' criticisms in stride.

Chosen by Green to answer questions, they even seem mildly puzzled by the laundry list of complaints. All say they've never had problems coming up with the time and money the church asks for. Nor have they struggled to keep personal freedom under the watch of their disciplers.

Instead, they assert that the church fulfills them in ways disposable modern America cannot. All also acknowledge that the church demands a lot of energy, but say it's willingly given.

"Personally, I get a relationship with God that's stronger and deeper," says Curtiss, a UM criminology student, who joined three and a half years ago and is now one of the campus leaders. "What I get out of it is a process of daily changes, getting to work on changing things in my character that I don't like. Beyond that, there's an impact on those around me that comes from being focused on living a better life."

Older and married with children, the Capraras may have a different perspective than Curtiss, but their testimony echoes his. "The biggest thing personally, for me, is a deeper understanding of the Bible and learning how to have a better relationship with God," Craig Caprara says.

"Also, I've never had a group of people around me that cares so much. We're always looking out for each other, always loving each other. And they're people who aren't afraid to tell the hard truth."

Colleen, for her part, plainly doesn't buy claims that the whole church, from Kip McKean on down to the personal discipling relationships, is coercive. "Everything I've ever done has been my choice," she says. "No one has ever forced me to do anything."

Photo by Lise Thompson
The Missoula Christian Church meets out on West Broadway, behind a furniture store, next to a car dealership.

Photo by Lise Thompson
Local pastor John Engels is trying to organize opposition to the MCC.

Photo by Tom Lee
Stoney and John Esp have struggled with their daughter’s involvement with the MCC—and want her out.


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